And then there was darkness…

Increased automation is leading us towards ‘lights out’ facilities where no humans tread.

‘The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment’: Professor Warren Bennis, University of Southern California business school.

Every day the trucks turn up. They drop raw materials at the factory door. They pick up finished product at the other end. The factory operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is no jovial banter, no 11 am coffee break, no demob-happy Friday afternoon. There are no windows and no lights. There is only darkness and the noise of robots working without rest.

Some may find this a chilling scenario, but since the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing has evolved from a labour intensive enterprise to a technology-oriented mass production process, and many think that before long humans will be banished from the factory floor.

Indeed, in some niche areas the dark factory is already a reality. Since the mid 90s, IBM has had a keyboard assembly plant in Texas which, if you discount a few maintenance engineers, is almost entirely ‘lights-out’. And, in the semiconductor industry, a ‘lights-out’ fab is the ultimate goal, with chip-makers constantly striving to cut device-manufacturing costs while doubling production. Another example is an ABB factory in Athens, Georgia, USA, that produces electrical distribution transformers for overhead power lines. ABB claims to have slashed order time, cycle times, and floor space by using automation from the point of ordering, through production and on to the delivery of the finished product. The process requires virtually no human intervention once the order is placed. Placing the order on a computer creates a bill of material, which is then instantaneously released to factory robots.

The factory includes seven robots, two press brakes for bending metal, a laser cutting system and various welding machines. This is also the first cell in the U.S. to use a robot to manage the press brake and laser system in the handling of large steel sheets. On the assembly line, winding machines download design data to produce the transformer windings.

John Pritchard, Rockwell Automation’s manager for motion products, anticipates the appearance of many more such facilities.

‘At around £1,000 per axis, the cost of motion control systems is roughly a third the cost of 10 years ago,’ he says. ‘This now means these systems can be considered for many other industries.’

‘The latest control technologies are easier to learn and use, and are more readily adopted by UK manufacturers looking to reduce labour costs in order to compete with rivals based in lower cost countries,’ says Pritchard.

He explains how the automation and control systems are already available to make lights out units a reality: ‘At the shop floor, intelligent sensors and actuators now have built-in communications and diagnostic capabilities that enable them to give advance warning of a problem before they fail. Using the web, these alerts can be transmitted to engineers off-site and corrective action taken through the network without anyone entering the factory. On the sales side, orders can be automatically processed and scheduled for production by the plant.’

For Pritchard, the Achilles’ heel of unmanned factories remains the mechanical elements of the production process, such as materials handling. In the food industry, for example, packaging machines often use thin plastic film and other materials which are difficult to control.

Chris Hazlewood, customer marketing manager with Mitsubishi Electric agrees. ‘The ability to automate a complete organisation is a reality in today’s manufacturing environment,’ he says. But, while the cost-focused manager will only see the reduction in staffing levels and the availability of increased production hours, Hazlewood asks whether the initial costs to automate will ever be repaid.

He adds, ‘Some process industry activities are just about there with the totally automated system, but they’re usually working on a ‘contained’ fluid which is relatively easily transported and can actually undergo ‘work’ or change during its journey along a pipeway. An amount of relatively simple pressure, flow and perhaps temperature measurement take care of business in this instance. However, when the transported fluid arrives at a reactor or similar product enhancing point a huge amount of monitoring with some control is applied, often with dual redundant solutions.’

For an example of an effective ‘lights out’ operation, Hazlewood cites the Virgin Cola plant in County Monaghan, Ireland. It is run efficiently with a handful of people controlling the whole plant from a series of MX SCADA nodes.

Gary Smith, MD of QNX software systems also believes that the future is dark. Referring to automotive plants, Smith says, ‘as technology develops and becomes more reliable, human involvement will be reduced massively and become minimal.’The main hurdle, says Smith, ‘is stitching all the different technologies together. Integrated vision and inspection systems will also be required to make lights-out factories work. If no humans are involved in a manufacturing process, you must be sure that everything works together accurately. The more you stitch together, the more danger there is of the whole thing failing.’

‘The main pitfall with SCADA,’ a potential solution to this problem, says Smith, ‘is that although it can pinpoint problems, it is often unable to rectify them beyond re-routing outputs or generating an alarm. To achieve a truly reliable and fully functional lights out factory, more sophisticated monitoring tools are needed which allow for self recovery, maintenance and repair.’

‘Developing the technologies that will enable the absolute reliability of all the systems involved in a lights out factory will be a costly process. But It can’t be denied that when they work, robots are more reliable then human beings. It’s creating an environment of high-availability, reliability and efficiency that will help lights out factories take off.’ he concludes.

But Chris Hazlewood sounds a note of caution. ‘The operator-less factory is a long way off and perhaps should stay there. A system is only as good as the person that programmed it, and by mixing in some human interaction you get a ‘fuzzy’ effect which can often solve or pre-empt problems.’

‘There is still a place for operators just as is there a place for automated operation’, argues Hazlewood. ‘The difficulty is striking the balance. At this point there is scope for more automation both on the shop floor and at a business level and most essentially between to the two.’

‘What many areas of the manufacturing industry are now looking at is almost a return to older values. Labelled ‘lean manufacturing’ these values are essentially the promotion of continuous improvement, business traits you can see throughout history.’

On a lighter note, a recent article in IT newspaper The Register puts a different spin on the ‘lights out’ debate with news that Lucent is attempting to cut electricity bills by illuminating its workers’ cubicles with only one fluorescent bulb, instead of four.